Q. My husband Jack and I are young parents. We have a two-month-old baby girl, Misha. Jack and I are under a lot of financial stress. We don’t get enough sleep. Misha cries a lot in the evening. Jack told me last night that he wanted to shake Misha to get her to stop. I grabbed her from him. I vaguely recall hearing you are not supposed to shake a baby. Can you please offer advice on ways to get a baby to stop crying? We feel desperate.
A. Young mother, you saved your baby from possible death or severe neurological damage by stopping your husband from shaking her. A friend of mine who has worked at Child Protective Services for over 30 years told me that he deals with families in which a baby has died or had neurological damage from shaking. It is referred to as shaken baby syndrome.
Babies have proportionately large heads for their bodies and they have very weak shoulder muscles. So when a baby is shaken, the brain bangs around in the head, which can cause severe damage, including bleeding in the brain, injury to nerve cell branches and retinal hemorrhage. Shaking may also cause broken bones. The baby can die or have lifelong neurological damage that can result in cerebral palsy, loss of hearing and sight, paralysis and seizures. You also saved your husband from legal charges. The person who has shaken a baby will be charged with assault on a child or with child homicide if the child dies.
When trying to stop the crying, check that she is not hungry and that her diaper is dry. Rethink the time before it started to try to determine the cause of the crying. Perhaps the baby was overstimulated by too many people handling her or disturbed to the point of not getting enough sleep. The baby could have gas pains, or the crying in the evening could be for no reason at all. The Seattle Children’s Hospital refers to this situation as PURPLE: P =peak of crying, U=unexpected R=resists soothing, P=pain-like face, L=long lasting, and E=evening. Babies that exhibit signs of PURPLE may cry as much as five hours in the afternoon or evening during their second and third months and slowly stop around their fourth or fifth months.
So for a couple of months, you have to learn ways to deal with the crying. Some experts suggest counting or saying the alphabet. Sometimes it is best to put the baby in a safe place, such as her crib, and let the baby cry while you go to a room where you can try to compose yourself with deep breathing and call for help. Ask a relative or friend to take over comforting your child. You can also call the Childhelp hotline at 1-800-422-4453 and talk to a counselor. Remind yourself that no baby has died from crying alone. It will eventually stop.
You can also try these actions to soothe your child:
- Play soft music or sing to the baby.
- Rock the child gently.
- Give the baby a warm bath.
- Run the vacuum.
- Take her for a ride in the car or stroller.
- Put your unclothed baby on your bare chest and rub her back.
Please get all the help you need so you and your husband never shake a baby. Find some ways to manage your stress as even babies are affected by parental stress.
Dear readers, if you know someone with a new baby, ask them if you can help so they can get rest. If they say no, send a meal. All new parents become extremely tired without sufficient help.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT,is an Austin-based psychotherapist.